Near-term Nanotechnology

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

The commercial interest in nanotechnology is being driven by visions of a stream of commercial products and applications that will lead to a new industrial revolution. Some significant nanotech products are already on the market.

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Check out, November 2003

Business Week recently named Nanotechnology one of the Ten Technologies That Will Change Our Lives. The commercial interest in nanotechnology is being driven by visions of a stream of new nanotech commercial products and applications that will lead to a new industrial revolution - a revolution in which almost every industry is likely to be affected.

Small dimensions, big differences

When we get down to nanometer dimensions, the classical laws of physics change. Once atomic size particles can be manipulated, it will be possible to produce new materials with desired properties: smaller, stronger, tougher, lighter and more resilient than anything that has ever been made.

The properties of materials that we notice - color, hardness, electrical and thermal conductivity and so on - all depend on the nature and structure of atoms and molecules. With increasing ability to design and build on an atomic and molecular scale, better and better materials are being developed, with entirely new properties. Those materials, in turn, become the building blocks for more complex systems and entirely new products.

With nanotech, today's supercomputer could become tomorrow's wristwatch PDA. Buildings and machines could signal when they need maintenance - and perhaps repair themselves. Our clothing could monitor our health and alert us to environmental hazards. All of these marvels, and many more, are scientifically possible. The difficulty is to figure out how and when these things will happen.

Practical nanotech materials

It turns out that commonly used materials take on entirely different characteristics when "assembled" at a molecular level. So, even today, the biggest nanotech market is in materials. The use of nanosize particles in products such as cosmetics, sunscreen, paints and a host of other products is already commonplace. Many specialized nanotech startups are already emerging and whole new industries will grow up around them.

Right now, for example, there are lots of startups selling carbon nanotubes, the strongest and most conductive fibers known. Molecule-size components are being assembled into complex composites and "smart" materials. For example, nanostructured membranes are being developed for efficient filtering of pollutants from water or air.

New gadgets galore

More than anything else, the commercial possibilities for new products are truly exciting. There are huge applications for tiny, inexpensive nanosensors - from medical diagnostics, to chemical and biohazard detection, to vast arrays of wireless networks.

IBM has already shipped more than 5 million disk drives with a new nanostructured magnetic coating (referred to as “pixie dust”) which quadruples the data storage. But, as the components shrink, manufacturing costs increase, and there are physical limits to the minimum size of a useful silicon transistor or the data storage density of a magnetic disk. So totally new nanotech devices are being explored to process and store information.

Carbon nanotube transistors can be made smaller than any possible silicon transistor, with far better performance. And other new ways of storing information are also being explored. For example, a nanomechanical system called “Millipede” stores data as tiny, erasable indentations in a thin plastic film; this could allow trillion of bits of information to fit within a chip that could be used in a wristwatch PDA.

Near term Nanotech

Some of these materials and products are still in the laboratory, just future visions. How about the near-term? Here are just some of the real nanotech products that are already on the market:
  • Sunscreen makers have found that nano-scale particles cover the skin more thoroughly and do not reflect light. So, Procter & Gamble is adding nano-size particles to its sunscreen lotions, with significantly better results.
  • With a rubber core that uses tiny "nanoclay" particles to form an airtight seal, Wilson's tennis balls retain their air pressure twice as long as ordinary balls.
  • Stain-free and wrinkle-resistant slacks developed by Nano-Tex are being sold by Eddie Bauer, Lee Jeans and others. Billions of tiny whiskers create a thin cushion of air above the cotton fabric, smoothing out wrinkles and allowing liquids to bead up and roll off without wetting the fabric.
William Atkinson makes his living by explaining technology to business types. He de-mystifies nanotechnology and describes the science and business behind it in his new book : Nanocosm: Nanotech and the big changes coming from the inconceivably small. In layman's terms, he discusses the complex science and its real near-term applications in manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, information technology and many other markets.

Here is Atkinson’s list of products and applications that are coming short-term - 2 to 5 years:

  • Car tires that require air just once a year
  • Self-assembly of small electronic parts
  • Artificial semiconductors based on proteins
  • Instant, error-proof pregnancy tests
  • Medical diagnostics computer chips
  • Portable concentrators that produce drinking water from air
On the horizon - 5-10 years:
  • Erasable, re-writable paper for books and newspapers
  • Bulletproof armor
  • Ultra-light, ceramic car engines
  • Voice-recognition hearing-aids
  • AIDS and cancer treatments
  • Smart buildings that resist earthquakes
Here’s another new book I recommend: The Next Big Thing Is Really Small by Uldrich & Newberry. This book provides a good, introductory explanation of how atoms and molecules are manipulated to create useful materials, devices, and systems.

Nanotech is NOT far off - within a decade it will have huge effects on manufacturing, health care, energy, agriculture, communications, transportation, and electronics; it will be a $1 trillion business and will create 2 million new jobs.

Read these books to get with it! Find out how nanotech will revolutionize YOUR markets, with applications in YOUR business!

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA